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Why we need safe spaces in schools

Monday, 16 August 2021 Dev

Dev believes that if he had been encouraged to talk about wellbeing and mental health, he would have been saved a lot of suffering.

Secondary school is a time where you begin to carve out your own identity, you discover your likes and dislikes, you make decisions for yourself. While this can be a time of liberation, exploration, and fun, it can also be a time when you feel isolated— like you’re in a bubble— and confused. There are so many difficult emotions to confront, decisions to make and experiences to navigate as you attempt to survive and do the best you can.

“I didn’t feel like I had shared experiences or values with others from my background.”

Although I had good friends I did not always feel comfortable or close to people. Nor did I feel at ease with myself because I was discovering new things about myself and dealing with difficult situations regarding family circumstances (health, financial, housing and more), understanding my own identities and hobbies and how they interacted with one another whether it be relating to gender, sexuality, race, religion or otherwise (as opposed to simply following or accepting those that had previously been thrust upon me).

Despite living in a diverse area, I struggled with my racial identity. I didn’t feel like I had shared experiences or values with others from my background (as a British Indian and/or South Asian), but I also didn’t find a sense of belonging with those of starkly different backgrounds either. So many first-generation immigrants or people belonging to different backgrounds may relate to this.

From early on, I pushed myself to discover and establish my values and ideals in the hope this would help me find people and communities I could relate to. I got involved in sports, academics, music, and all sorts of extracurricular activities in an attempt to discover what my core values were and what values I looked for in others.

Whilst this is a constant process, I did manage to discover a lot about myself and what I wanted. I realised which social causes meant the most to me, and discovered what was important to me in friendships and other human relationships. By being aware of my ‘limitations and areas for growth, I was better able to consciously get out of my comfort zone, and face difficulties as opposed to being blindsided by them in daily life when I least expected it. This was around the time of my GCSEs and A levels and it enabled me to forge connections with people I felt more comfortable with who were able to support me through my journey of growth.

Reflecting on childhood

I began to reflect on my childhood how things I had experienced or felt shaped me as a person. I had many difficulties surrounding my own health issues and others’ health issues (both mental and physical) that made me more aware of struggles more commonly discovered in adulthood. I was also exposed to discussions about finances, politics and cultural conflict. Due to the gravity of such issues, I often felt overwhelmed by the pressure and stress.

What this meant was that there were some ‘adult’ issues I was capable of dealing with, while there were many more common ‘adolescent’ issues that I felt completely out of my depth with.

I looked around and it didn’t seem like others were going through the same things or thinking about the same things.

I wish I had better understood the link between mental and physical health: not just knowing the importance of exercise but understanding how mental health problems can manifest physically e.g., Nausea, Shallow breathing, Exhaustion, Migraines and much more.

“People joke about the trauma of high school, but most don’t explicitly discuss the truth behind this”

When I did struggle with anxiety and depression, particularly at its peak, talking to friends really helped me and continues to do so today. I am so glad about the work I put in to help myself and grateful for the support my friends provided, but some of my feelings and anxieties needed to be addressed by a professional. Many people joke about the trauma and difficulty of high school, but most don’t explicitly discuss the truth behind this.

Racism and microaggressions

I dealt with racism, such as being excluded from certain activities, hobbies, or trends because some people thought I was ‘too ethnic’ while others thought I was ‘too white’. I also dealt with daily microaggressions, constant perceived and real expectations from family, friends, and educators, as well as much more. I wish my school had been more supportive – for example, given informative talks on these types of things. If it had, I don’t think I would have as much work and healing ahead of me.

One of the most challenging parts of dealing with our mental health is acknowledging that something is or was wrong in the first place. Until there is some form of acknowledgement, it is difficult to reflect on how superficial or deep the impact has been.

I believe open and honest conversations must be had to ensure people are better informed about themselves and others.  Schools must prepare us for life by teaching us general life skills. Arguably the most important life skills are how to look after our wellbeing and mental health.

I tried to have conversations and create safe spaces, but there is a limit on how much you can achieve individually. It requires a culture where it is normal for people to discuss issues such as mental health. We need to establish safe spaces within schools to do so. If we feel comfortable talking about wellbeing and mental health, then we will be able to show the next generation how to become well-rounded individuals who can better deal with difficult complex emotions and experiences.

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Dev isn't alone in his experiences of a lack of mental health support in school. Our new report reveals that it's a nationwide problem. Read more about the report's findings here.

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